Directed By: Werner Herzog
Starring: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer, Gisela Hertwig
Trivia: Werner Herzog promised the cast he would jump into a field of cactuses if they managed to pull through the movie. Eventually, he fulfilled his promise
One day, my brother and I got into a friendly argument over the films I view on a regular basis. “You watch a ton of weird-ass movies”, he said to me. I immediately took issue with this statement, and started rattling off a number of well-respected classics I count among my all-time favorites (The Godfather, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and so on ). He then looked me square in the eye and said “You watched a movie about German midgets running wild on the Canary Islands”.
The debate ended right there. “Yeah”, I sheepishly replied, “ I did watch that one”. I couldn’t even muster up the courage to tell him I really liked it, too.
The movie he was referring to is Even Dwarfs Started Small, director Werner Herzog’s 1970 black and white film set in a world inhabited entirely by little people. At a remote psychiatric clinic, the facility’s president (Pepe Hermine) punishes an inmate named Pepe (Gerd Gickel) for a minor infraction by tying him to a chair in his office. In an effort to free their pal, the remaining patients stage a rebellion, and march on the president’s office, demanding Pepe be released. Yet what starts as a small uprising soon devolves into total mayhem, and by the time all is said and done, some property's been destroyed, a few animals have been humiliated, and the facility’s truck lies smoldering in a ditch.
With Even Dwarfs Started Small, Herzog has taken the stance that rebellion, whether justifiable or not, can sometimes lead to lawlessness. Yet as the movie unfolds, even Herzog himself gets swept up in the chaos, completely abandoning structure and narrative in favor of pure cinematic anarchy. In one unforgettable sequence, the inmates gather around an outdoor table to eat a meal they’ve prepared, only to start flinging the food at each other instead. But the scene doesn’t end there; soon, the group is taking their frustrations out on the above-mentioned truck, which is driving, round and round in a circle, behind them… with nobody at the wheel! Having already tossed food at each other, the inmates start heaving it (along with some plates, a few glasses, the odd bottle or two, and a typewriter) at the truck as it continually rolls by.
As an added bonus, Herzog didn’t bother editing out any of the real-life insanity that slipped into Even Dwarfs Started Small from time to time, like when the actor playing Pepe, still tied to a chair, reacts with shock when the window behind him shatters and a live chicken comes crashing to the ground (the poor guy kept staring off-screen, a look of horror on his face, waiting in vain for Herzog to yell ‘Cut’). The camera also captures an argument that breaks out between two actors, when the guy playing Hombre (Helmut Doring) refuses to climb a small hill with the rest of the group (one actress calls him a coward, and he angrily tells her to kiss his ass).
Believe it or not, this is only scratching the surface; there’s still plenty of lunacy left for you to discover on your own. A smorgasbord of the strange and unusual, Even Dwarfs Started Small is, as my brother put it, a “weird-ass movie”.
And I absolutely love it!